President Donald Trump invited the Republican Senate caucus to lunch to talk about health care on Wednesday. The goal of the lunch was kind of a mystery, considering that enough Republican senators have already come forward to torpedo both Trump’s signature effort to repeal and replace Obamacare with a program that would cost tens of millions of people their insurance, as well as his backup plan of just repealing it outright in a way that would cost more than 30 million people their insurance.
It turned out that Trump had brought them to the White House to try to browbeat and harangue recalcitrant senators into changing their minds. The most emphatic example of this attempted bullying came with Trump’s treatment of Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. The seating arrangements conveniently placed Heller, one of the earliest Senators to come out publicly and vociferously against the initial Senate health care bill, next to the president. This offered the insult comic in chief the opportunity to come up with a singularly awkward gibe.
That was the president of the United States threatening his party’s most vulnerable senator up for re-election in 2018 with the loss of his job if he didn’t come around to supporting an already dead health care bill. What’s especially fun about this is that Heller wasn’t even one of the Senators to come out and kill the revised version of the bill, nor did he kill the backup plan of repealing Obamacare without a replacement. That was Sens. Susan Collins, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Jerry Moran in the first instance, and Sens. Collins, Shelley Moore Capito, and Lisa Murkowski in the latter.
Still, it seems like the relatively moderate Heller, who represents a state that has gone to Democratic presidential candidates in the past three elections, is going to be conservatives’ fall guy for Trumpcare’s failure. After Heller came out against the first version of the bill, a Trump-affiliated super PAC planned to run a barrage of advertising against him. It retreated from that plan after criticism from within the Republican caucus. Apparently Plan D in the health care battles, though, is to go back to scapegoating the man representing the Republican Party’s most vulnerable seat in the Senate. Conservative media started to once again place a target on Heller’s back after the failure of the Senate bill became clear on Monday. Trump is apparently following that game plan.
In addition to this peculiar and seemingly ad-libbed threat, Trump tried to sell his defunct bill with an extended soliloquy on his view that Obamacare is dead and on the professed merits of Trumpcare.
“This is far better than Obamacare and more generous than Obamacare,” he said of a bill that will gut $772 billion in Medicaid funding over the next 10 years imperiling health care for millions of Americans including 5 million special needs children. Trump also promised his bill would lower premiums for the people who remained in the health care system. (It would do so by allowing healthy individuals to buy cheap, bare-bones plans that offer little in the way of actual coverage.)
When Heller announced his opposition to the original Senate bill, he said that to make this claim that this bill would lower premiums—a claim also made by the rest of the Republican leadership—would be a “lie.”
There’s no way to know whether Trump’s threats—like previous ones—are empty, but it certainly looks like Heller might be the patsy that the failure of Trumpcare apparently needs. If he ultimately is, of course, that could very well cost the GOP a critical Senate seat come next year.